Heredity is a deeply mixed blessing. Thanks to research into human genetics, scientists can now explain how you got those bright blue eyes, or that unfortunate tendency for chocolate to go straight to your hips. Genes can also include a predisposition to some very unpleasant medical conditions, which is nothing to joke about. Cytogeneticists are lab technicians who help doctors diagnose genetically-influenced illnesses and medical conditions, by identifying genetic markers that can indicate risk factors or the presence of an illness. Certification is optional for cytogeneticists, but highly valued.
Formal Cytogenetics Training
If you're interested in becoming a cytogenetic technologist, your first step is earning a bachelor of science degree from an accredited university. Your major isn't especially important, as long as your course selection is heavy on the biological sciences, chemistry and math. After you graduate, you'll need to enroll in a cytogenetic technology program accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS). Those usually last one year, and award a certificate in cytogenetics. Some schools might incorporate that training into a bachelor's degree program, shortening your education by a year. Once you've completed both programs, you're eligible for certification.
If you don't have access to an NAACLS-approved training program, there are a couple of other options. If you've earned a bachelor's degree with a major in biological science or chemistry, or if you've got a bachelor's degree and at least 30 semester hours of course work in those subjects, you can become eligible by working for at least one year in an approved cytogenetics laboratory in the U.S. or Canada. If you have a graduate degree in genetics or molecular biology and nine months of work experience in a lab, you're also eligible.
The certification process is administered by the American Society for Clinical Pathology, but you don't need to be a member of the ASCP to earn and maintain your certification. You just need to submit an application, together with the appropriate fees and documentation of your training and work experience. Once you're accepted for testing, you can arrange a test date at a Pearson Vue testing center near you. The certification exam is in multiple-choice format, consisting of 100 questions with a 2 1/2 hour time limit. Once you receive formal notice of passing, you can begin using the CG(ASCP) credential after your name.
You don't need to be certified to work in a cytogenetic laboratory -- that's how you gain work experience, if you don't go through a formal training program -- but it's a complex field, and some employers prefer to hire certified technologists. You'll be responsible for a variety of testing procedures, from detecting Down syndrome in amniotic fluid to leukemia and other cancers in bone marrow or blood cells. You'll do this by identifying the chromosomes that make up the sample's DNA, looking for irregularities.
- American Medical Association: Health Care Careers Directory -- Cytogenetic Technologist
- National Human Genome Research Institute: Career Profiles -- Cytogenetic Technologist
- Salisbury University: What is Cytogenetics and Medical Genetics?
- Stanford University: Chromosomal Analysis
- American Society for Clinical Pathology: U.S. Certification
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.